By Martin Kidston
The city’s list of achievements over the past five years runs long, ranging from a new downtown parking garage to the completion of Silver Park. It helped direct affordable housing to the Old Sawmill District, completed a climate action plan, and passed the state’s first non-discrimination ordinance.
But with resources limited and opinions ranging on what the city should aspire to become, writing a list of goals for the next five years may prove more challenging, at least when it comes to reaching consensus.
The Missoula City County on Monday joined department heads and the Office of the Mayor in a day-long workshop aimed at revamping the city’s annual budgeting process, one that includes defining what the city stands for and the goals it hopes to achieve.
In the past – and with conversations limited to a few hectic weeks – the budgeting process has left members of the council frustrated. Now its members are eyeing a new strategy that expands the conversations throughout the year, and gets the executive and legislative branches working from the same list of goals.
“We have 12 different people on City Council, and we all come with our issues,” said Ward 6 council member Marilyn Marler. “We don’t always have a chance to hear what those are ahead of time and then prioritize within those. It’s better if we have a teamwork strategy, so at least people know where they stand, so we don’t have what happens in a lot of budget seasons.”
In typical budgeting years, the 12 members of the council, the city’s department heads and the Office of the Mayor bring their individual agendas to the table at the 11th hour. The work takes place within a few frantic weeks when tensions are high, giving little time for visionary planning.
As Marler said in November, “It frequently seems like we get the mayor’s budget and we just react to it.”
“It’s better if we have an idea of where we’re going,” Marler said. “The mayor also knows what that is. It’s more of a thoughtful process. It gives us a chance to exchange ideas separate from policies and deadlines.”
The council agreed to the new budgeting strategy in November, one that sets deadlines throughout the process. The first step in that process began on the sixth floor of the First Interstate Bank building on Monday, where city leaders sat around the table and began writing a new mission statement.
The working draft now reads, “Reflecting the needs and values of our citizens, the City of Missoula commits to enhancing opportunity and quality of life through the effective delivery of services and fiscal stewardship, while maintaining and creating a harmonious natural and built environment.”
While not everyone agreed with the wording, most agreed with the statement’s priorities. Led by Dan Clark and Blake Christensen with Montana State University’s Local Government Center, they also began crafting a new vision statement.
“We are an inclusive city where all people can live and celebrate meaningful, purposeful and fulfilling lives through the confluence of unparalleled recreational, cultural and entrepreneurial opportunity,” the vision statement now reads.
Christensen said the two statements represented a good starting point, setting an aspirational direction for the city as it begins to sift through its many budgeting priorities.
“The value in this sort of goal-setting process is, once we’re on the same page with who we are and where we’re going, now we can change the tone and context,” Christensen said. “We’re not making decisions based on personal preference alone. We’re making a decision based on whether this will get us to that. Will it move us down the tracks?”
A recent survey conducted by the Local Government Center asked city staff and elected officials to identify past achievements, new goals and barriers to realizing them.
The list of actions envisioned in the survey over the next five years ran nearly a page long. Going into Monday’s meeting, they included restoration of the Clark Fork River, a public safety bond, expanding broadband and rebranding the city. They also included a local option sales tax, revamping Brooks Street into a high-density and transit-oriented corridor, and creating policies that support economic growth.
Obstacles included funding, a lack of excited staff, resistance to change and bond fatigue within the public.
“It’s an opportunity for the council – for the executive and legislative branches – to come together and talk about common goals,” said Blake. “We’re hoping it will allow for improved communication between the two branches as they come together, work on the budget and prioritize the limited resources they have.”
Engen’s draft budget is expected out next month. While it won’t likely include any numbers or financial figures, it will give the City Council an earlier look at the mayor’s budgeting priorities. That will be followed with presentations by individual department heads throughout the spring.
Engen said the city would benefit by having more people participate in the process, though it’s possible the goals of the executive branch won’t always align with those of the legislative branch, and vice versa.
“My sense is that people are generally going to be on the same page,” Engen said. “There’s a natural tension between executive and legislative. It’s just the way of the world. But the more we talk and communicate, the better we’ll be.”
Contact reporter Martin Kidston at firstname.lastname@example.org